Dangerous anthropogenic interference

The stated objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is to achieve “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The most problematic aspect of this mandate is the open definition of ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference.’ Given that we have direct ice core evidence that concentrations of carbon dioxide are higher than at any point in the past 650,000 years – along with indirect evidence that this is the peak for the last 20 million years – it is fair to say that we are already interfering dangerously with the climate system.

Of course, one cannot go straight from showing elevated CO2 to ascribing danger. That said, the link between greenhouse gasses and increases in radiative forcing and temperature is incontrovertible. So too, the realities of icecap and glacier melting and ocean acidification. The question is no longer about whether or not we will cause dangerous interference, but how much danger we are willing to tolerate in exchange for less rapid and comprehensive changes to our high-carbon lifestyles.

Standardizing cell phone chargers


Forgetting my cell phone charger in Toronto has already resulted in a week of weak connectivity. It need not be so. While it must be a gold mine for cell phone shops and manufacturers, the absurd proliferation of charger types is clearly an anti-competitive practice.

A government keen to protect consumers and boost overall economic efficiency would do the following:

  1. Require that all cellular phones be rechargeable using a standard connector.
  2. Ideally, that connector should be mini-USB (second from the left), capable of transferring both power and data.
  3. Require that adapters be sold for all phones made in the past five years, and that the cost of the adapters equal just the cost of shipping and manufacture.

As long as any charger could be plugged into any phone and provide power, firms would be free to compete in designing and building chargers that connect to electrical outlets, car cigarette lighters, or whatever other source of power seems fitting.

The intervention in the market is justified for the same reason as with all standards: it produces societal welfare without adverse effects. It replaces self-serving confusion generated by private firms with an ordered approach that makes sense for everyone. It is not as though there is any major innovation which can occur with cell phone chargers. At root, they are just plastic-wrapped wires that run from a socket to a circuit board. Having fewer types – and making them go obsolete less frequently – would also reduce the usage of energy and materials in manufacturing, as well as the number of (potentially toxic) plastic trinkets populating landfills worldwide. A standard would allow people to share chargers, as well as permit buses and trains to have universal charging stations available.

Something similar could be done for laptop computers. Cell phones and laptops are both ubiquitous elements of modern life and commerce. Just think how many productive hours are needlessly lost because each manufacturer wants to ensure that last year’s charger cannot be sold to someone buying this year’s phone.

How to make a difference

If my aim is to make a positive impact on the emerging climate crisis, the least productive possible use of my time is spending 5-6 years in the U.S. doing a PhD in political science or international relations.

It could be argued that the best use would be getting an engineering degree. Then, I could either (a) contribute more intelligently to policy, by better understanding the physical dynamics of what we’re dealing with or (b) actually go off and try and build a better battery / solar panel / electricity grid.

Conversely, it could be argued that high-level direction is what is needed, serving to get more specific forms of expertise applied to a sufficient degree. Even if that contention is accepted, however, it seems unlikely that an additional degree in a social science would help.

Considering the future of oil

Compact fluorescent lamp post

People frequently mention how, in the 17th and 18th century, lobster was so abundant in the eastern United States that it was used as a staple food for orphans, servants, and prisoners. Supposedly, Massachusetts passed a law restricting it to being served at most twice a week.

In the era of lobster scarcity, this seems incredible to us. The same basic ideas can be usefully applied to petroleum. There is a good case to be made that petroleum prices will continue to rise dramatically in the medium to long term on the basis of growing demand and flat or declining production. If that proves true, oil will be the new lobster. Where prior cheapness made it the fuel of choice in all kinds of applications, cost will gradually squeeze it out from everywhere something cheaper can do the trick. I am mostly talking about liquid petroleum here, but a similar market dynamic is likely to arise with natural gas (though it is tougher to export overseas), or even coal.

People used to grind up lobster to use as fertilizer for gardens. The oil equivalent is probably using petroleum to generate constant baseload electricity for the grid. Oil costs more to transport, burns less efficiently, and is much more import-dependent than natural gas. Oil for electricity is one of those uses that people generally switch from as soon as a viable opportunity arises. Barring some isolated communities and autocratic petro-states, I doubt anyone will be generating electricity from the grid using oil in a few decades’ time.

Moving up the value chain, there are two big ways in which oil is used: as a high-density source of energy and as a feedstock for industrial processes. In both cases, higher prices will start to produce substitution in areas where alternatives are possible. Electric lawnmowers are quieter and a whole lot less toxin-spewing than their gasoline counterparts; similarly, plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles are the best option for those city-dwellers who continue to demand a private vehicle.

Where only oil will do

At the top of the value chain are applications where nothing but oil will do. A fancy restaurant cannot serve a heap of flavoured tofu and call it lobster, though frozen dinner companies do something similar all the time. The essential uses for oil will ultimately relate to the two fundamental properties described above: energy density and chemical makeup.

The foremost essential market for the first remains aircraft. Ground transportation to migrate towards electric. Hopefully, someone will also be able to come up with a biofuel that solves more problems than it creates. Ships can return to coal or sails, or even be outfit with marine nuclear reactors. Planes – for the foreseeable future – will need to continue burning mostly kerosene.

The chemistry of oil makes it the basis for most of our plastics, but it is difficult for a non-expert like me to determine the degree to which that is the result of its historically low price. Certainly, permanently higher prices for oil will lead to some changes in the plastics industry. If prices rise, people will use less and will substitute less costly materials. Where possible, people will also make plastics from things other than oil. It seems likely, however, that there will be at least a few industrial processes where only oil will do.

Broader impacts

When it comes to prices for refined petroleum fuels, the world is broadly divided into three groups of states. There are those where oil has long been relatively expensive, such as in Western Europe. There are those where oil has been moderately subsidized, creating a mild culture of entitlement, such as the United States. Finally, there are those where subsidies are extreme. Gasoline in many European states is well above $2.00 a litre; in the United States, it remains around $1.00; in Iran, it is $0.09 and in Venezuela just $0.05.

In many countries within the third group, subsidies are already a huge expense. Iran may produce a lot of oil, but it refines relatively little into gasoline. As such, it needs to import gasoline in order to provide it to its citizens for pennies. A good number of them will then be tempted to re-export it and pocket the difference. That temptation can only grow in a world of ever-more-expensive oil. Governments then find themselves in the awkward position of having to either cut a popular and stabilizing policy or somehow finance a growing drain on the public purse.

While it is extremely difficult to predict what the overall effects of continually rising oil prices would be, two conclusions do seem highly probable. Firstly, uses of oil that produce little value or which could easily switch to another fuel will be priced out of the oil-buying market by high margin options with few substitutes. Secondly, more stress will develop in relation to wildly different prices for refined fuels, especially when it comes to states like Iran that subsidize domestic consumption heavily.

[Update: 8 March 2010]. BuryCoal.com is a site dedicated to making the case for leaving coal, along with unconventional oil and gas, underground.

Learning about lithosphere-atmosphere interactions from the cryosphere

The European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) has recently announced results confirming that the long-term regulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is largely a geological phenomenon. Carbon dioxide is naturally introduced into the atmosphere through volcanic activity and naturally removed through the weathering of rock and the deposition of carbon-laden rock in deep ocean sediments.

On the basis of evidence collected from a 3270 metre Antarctic ice core, the EPICA team determined that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide underwent a long-term change of 22 parts per million over the 610,000 years before industrialization. This period covers five complete glacial-interglacial cycles. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, concentrations have risen by about 100 ppm – an overall rate 14,000 times higher.

Probably the most important thing to take from this is that the current behaviour of the global carbon system is likely to be different from that which has been dominant across geological time, simply because such a huge volume of carbon dioxide has been released through the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

Embassy artwork

Ugly statue outside the American Embassy, Ottawa

The city of Ottawa is quite well provisioned with public art. Some pieces, like the wooden spiral in the park near the mint, are quite charming. The piece above, located in the US embassy compound, is probably the worst of the lot.

As you can see, the sculpture looks a bit like a balloon animal where the balloons have been replaced by black steel beams and the angles have been randomly altered by twenty or thirty degrees. Sitting within a perimeter fence that never contains a visible human, the statue also symbolizes how faceless and harsh the whole compound is.

While concerns about security are obviously of enormous importance for an American diplomatic facility, nothing about them seems fundamentally at odds with good taste. A less ghastly bit of art, and an embassy that somehow demonstrates that the United States is a nation full of people basically just like Canadians rather than an imposing neo-military facade, might be a start along that road.

P.S. In the spirit of fairness, it should be noted that the British High Commission is equally externally unpopulated and far more lacking in architectural virtue.

P.P.S Two other statues notably for their oddness and lack of aesthetic appeal are the strange rocket ship / polar bear statue at the building formerly intended to become city hall and the giant evil spider outside the National Gallery.

Oil prices and American politics

Robert Rapier, a petroleum engineer and blogger, recently posted an ‘Open Letter to Our Next President.’ He has recently been doing a good job of showing why ideas like a summer gas tax holiday or suing OPEC for the right to buy oil at the price we want are wrong-headed popularity stunts. He has also been doing a good job of highlighting the degree to which current petroleum prices are largely the product of long-term trends. If more and more people want ever-more oil, at the same time as existing fields are producing flat or declining yields and new discoveries are not keeping pace, prices are certain to keep rising.

The question is whether one of those four pillars will be eroded. It is possible we will finally get a handle on per-capita oil demand, and start along the long road to renewable energy use. It is also possible that economic conditions will reduce the growth in world demand for oil as people in India and China are forced to grow richer more slowly than at present. It is possible that new technology will significantly increase yields from existing oil fields for some period of time. Finally, it is possible that big new finds will keep the (planet destroying) party going a bit longer for everybody.

It is time to start thinking much more seriously about the possibility than none of those ‘outs’ will materialize.

Fevered imagination

Yellow spring flower

While sleeping off fever, I had a surprisingly coherent and well developed dream. If anyone wants to turn it into a Major Motion Picture Event, they can contact me about the rights.

It begins with a medium-sized dry cleaning shop in an American town dominated by a huge army base. The shop is struggling because the huge majority of the business comes from the armed forces, and it is all assigned through huge low-bid contracts. The owners decide that, small or not, they need to get into that system. Hoping to build some name recognition, at least, they decide to put in an a bid they feel sure will be higher than that of anyone else for the next thing to come up.

Meanwhile, some high ranking officers are discussing a problem. Due to a shipping problem, the dress uniforms of 1,000 soldiers returning from abroad have become soiled. (The film includes a shot of a non-waterproof cargo container sitting on the tarmac beside some jungle in the pouring rain. A mid-level officer has a muddy uniform half-pulled out and is shouting at someone more junior, though you cannot hear any of it through the rain.) They uniforms are needed clean for a big ceremony occurring in 24 hours. As a result, an urgent tender for contracts is posted on a government website.

Seeing the order, the dry cleaning shop owners decide that this is their chance to get noticed. They don’t have the resources to handle 1,000 uniforms in a day, but it’s not hugely beyond their capabilities. This is the kind of deal they want the military brass to consider them for. Not wanting to take on something they cannot handle, they bid $15,000,000 and leave it at that.

At computer terminals across the city, brief scenes show the big cleaning companies considering the contract and deciding it is too small to bother with. As a result, nobody else files a bid.

As a result, the small firm finds itself with a contract to clean 1,000 uniforms in 24 hours, for $15,000 each. Working flat out themselves, they are sure they can manage about 350. In the opportunity of a lifetime, they offer two other similarly sized companies the opportunity to clean 350 uniforms each for $10,000 a piece.

The portion involving the actual cleaning has your standard movie mixture of minor problems, clever solutions, and emotive demonstrations of why the various cleaners really need the money (to deal with higher interest mortgages, pay medical expenses, etc). At the last minute, the biggest truck owned by the dry cleaning firm breaks down, but, through a favour from the Hispanic army officer cousin of one of the owners, a big army truck comes by to collect the uniforms.

Sitting around celebrating with pizza and beer, the cleaners are surprised when a flashing message appears on the army requisition computer. For completing their contract on time and on budget, they are being given a 20% bonus.

One odd thing about my experience in dreaming the above is that the actual dream alternated between watching segments of the film which I had made in a room in my high school and walking around the building explaining various aspects to friends and acquaintances of mine. For instance, I was explaining to my friend Kate how, ideally, the film would work on two levels: as a feel-good story about an upstart out-maneuvering big competitors and winning a big reward and as a comment on the wastefulness of the armed forces. It would appear the the combination of influenza, NyQuil, and chocolate chunk cookies can have strange effects on the human subconscious.

Beetle-kill and carbon dioxide

Positive feedbacks are one of the most worrisome aspects of climate change. Viscious spirals could make controlling the problem far more difficult and, if we wait too long to act, potentially impossible to deal with. A new article in Nature suggests that the pine beetle epidemic in British Columbia has turned the forests there into net carbon emitters:

In the team’s model, a pine forest untouched by beetles but with a normal amount of logging is a slight carbon sink, sucking up more carbon (as carbon dioxide) than it loses (either as carbon dioxide or as timber). The only exception to this is when forest fires convert the forest to a net source, as they did in 2003. The beetles have an even bigger effect — in their worst year releasing 50% more carbon than the 2003 fires — and act over longer time scales, with additional logging making things even worse.

According to Werner Kurz, Natural Resources Canada’s senior research scientist, the total emissions associated with the outbreak will be about 990 megatonnes by 2020 – about 1.5 years worth of total Canadian emissions at present levels.

Eventually, the pine beetles will find themselves in the position of having nothing left to eat and the epidemic will taper off. What is nevertheless suggested by this situation is the possibility that climate change can lead to degraded ecosystems which hold less carbon dioxide, thus further contributing to climate change.